The area of the whole city amounts to more than 13,840 hectares, including 1,075 hectares off the coast, at Zeebrugge. The historic city centre is a prominent World Heritage Site of UNESCO. It is oval and about 430 hectares in size. The city's total population is 117,073, of whom around 20,000 live in the city centre. The metropolitan area, including the outer commuter zone, covers an area of 616 km2 and has a total of 255,844 inhabitants as of 1 January 2008.
Along with a few other canal-based northern cities, such as Amsterdam, it is sometimes referred to as The Venice of the North. Bruges has a significant economic importance thanks to its port and was once one of the world's chief commercial cities. Bruges is well known as the seat of the College of Europe, an elite university institute for European studies regarded as "the EU's very own Oxbridge."
The place is first mentioned in records as Bruggas, Brvggas, Brvccia in 840–875, then as Bruciam, Bruociam (in 892), Brutgis uico (toward end of the 9th century), in portu Bruggensi (c. 1010), Bruggis (1012), Bricge (1037, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), Brugensis (1046), Brycge (1049–1052, again in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), Brugias (1072), Bruges (1080–1085), Bruggas (c. 1084), Brugis (1089), and Brugge (1116).
The name probably derives from the Old Dutch for "bridge": brugga. Also compare Middle Dutch brucge, brugge (or brugghe, brigghe, bregghe, brogghe), and modern Dutch bruggehoofd ("bridgehead") and brug ("bridge"). The form brugghe would be a southern Dutch variant. The Dutch word and the English "bridge" both derive from Proto-Germanic *brugjō-.
Bruges was a location of coastal settlement during prehistory. This Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement is unrelated to medieval city development. In the Bruges area, the first fortifications were built after Julius Caesar's conquest of the Menapii in the first century BC, to protect the coastal area against pirates. The Franks took over the whole region from the Gallo-Romans around the 4th century and administered it as the Pagus Flandrensis. The Viking incursions of the ninth century prompted Count Baldwin I of Flanders to reinforce the Roman fortifications; trade soon resumed with England and Scandinavia. Early medieval habitation starts in the 9th and 10th century on the Burgh terrain, probably with a fortified settlement and church
Bruges became important due to the tidal inlet that was important to local commerce, This inlet was then known as the "Golden Inlet". Bruges received its city charter on 27 July 1128, and new walls and canals were built. In 1089 Bruges became the capital of the County of Flanders. Since about 1050, gradual silting had caused the city to lose its direct access to the sea. A storm in 1134, however, re-established this access, through the creation of a natural channel at the Zwin. The new sea arm stretched all the way to Damme, a city that became the commercial outpost for Bruges.
Bruges had a strategic location at the crossroads of the northern Hanseatic League trade and the southern trade routes. Bruges was already included in the circuit of the Flemish and French cloth fairs at the beginning of the 13th century, but when the old system of fairs broke down the entrepreneurs of Bruges innovated. They developed, or borrowed from Italy, new forms of merchant capitalism, whereby several merchants would share the risks and profits and pool their knowledge of markets. They employed new forms of economic exchange, including bills of exchange (i.e. promissory notes) and letters of credit. The city eagerly welcomed foreign traders, most notably the Portuguese traders selling pepper and other spices.
With the reawakening of town life in the twelfth century, a wool market, a woollens weaving industry, and the market for cloth all profited from the shelter of city walls, where surpluses could be safely accumulated under the patronage of the counts of Flanders. The city's entrepreneurs reached out to make economic colonies of England and Scotland's wool-producing districts. English contacts brought Normandy grain and Gascon wines. Hanseatic ships filled the harbor, which had to be expanded beyond Damme to Sluys to accommodate the new cog-ships. In 1277, the first merchant fleet from Genoa appeared in the port of Bruges, first of the merchant colony that made Bruges the main link to the trade of the Mediterranean. This development opened not only the trade in spices from the Levant, but also advanced commercial and financial techniques and a flood of capital that soon took over the banking of Bruges. The Bourse opened in 1309 (most likely the first stock exchange in the world) and developed into the most sophisticated money market of the Low Countries in the 14th century. By the time Venetian galleys first appeared, in 1314, they were latecomers. Numerous foreign merchants were welcomed in Bruges, such as the Castilian wool merchants who first arrived in the 13th century. After the Castilian wool monopoly ended, the Basques, many hailing from Bilbao (Biscay), thrived as merchants (wool, iron commodities, etc.) and established their own commercial consulate in Bruges by the mid-15th century. The foreign merchants expanded the city's trading zones. They maintained separate communities governed by their own laws until the economic collapse after 1700.
Such wealth gave rise to social upheavals, which were for the most part harshly contained by the militia. In 1302, however, after the Bruges Matins (the nocturnal massacre of the French garrison in Bruges by the members of the local Flemish militia on 18 May 1302), the population joined forces with the Count of Flanders against the French, culminating in the victory at the Battle of the Golden Spurs, fought near Kortrijk on 11 July. The statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, the leaders of the uprising, can still be seen on the Big Market square. The city maintained a militia as a permanent paramilitary body. It gained flexibility and high prestige by close ties to a guild of organized militia, comprising professionals and specialized units. Militia men bought and maintained their own weapons and armour, according to their family status and wealth.
At the end of the 14th century, Bruges became one of the Four Members, along with Franc of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. Together they formed a parliament; however they frequently quarrelled amongst themselves.
In the 15th century, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, set up court in Bruges, as well as Brussels and Lille, attracting a number of artists, bankers, and other prominent personalities from all over Europe. The weavers and spinners of Bruges were thought to be the best in the world, and the population of Bruges grew to at least 125,000 and perhaps up to 200,000 inhabitants at this time around 1400 AD.
The new oil-painting techniques of the Flemish school gained world renown. The first book in English ever printed was published in Bruges by William Caxton. This is also when Edward IV and Richard III of England spent time in exile here.
Starting around 1500, the Zwin channel, (the Golden Inlet) which had given the city its prosperity, also started silting and the Golden Era had ended. The city soon fell behind Antwerp as the economic flagship of the Low Countries. During the 17th century, the lace industry took off, and various efforts to bring back the glorious past were made. During the 1650s, the city was the base for Charles II of England and his court in exile. The maritime infrastructure was modernized, and new connections with the sea were built, but without much success, as Antwerp became increasingly dominant. Bruges became impoverished and gradually faded in importance; its population dwindling from 200,000 to 50,000 by 1900.
The symbolist novelist George Rodenbach even made the sleepy city into a character in his novel Bruges-la-Morte, meaning "Bruges-the-dead", which was adapted into Erich Wolfgang Korngold's opera, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City).
In the last half of the 19th century, Bruges became one of the world's first tourist destinations attracting wealthy British and French tourists. By 1909 it had in operation an association called 'Bruges Forward: Society to Improve Tourism.'
In World War I German forces occupied Bruges but the city suffered virtually no damage and was liberated on 19 October 1918 by the allies. From 1940 in World War II the city again was occupied by the Germans and again spared destruction. On 12 September 1944 it was liberated by Canadian troops.
After 1965 the original medieval city experienced a renaissance. Restorations of residential and commercial structures, historic monuments, and churches generated a surge in tourism and economic activity in the ancient downtown area. International tourism has boomed, and new efforts have resulted in Bruges being designated 'European Capital of Culture' in 2002. It attracts some 2 million tourists annually.
The port of Zeebrugge was built in 1907. The Germans used it for their U-boats in World War I. It was greatly expanded in the 1970s and early 1980s and has become one of Europe's most important and modern ports.
The municipality comprises:
Bruges has most of its medieval architecture intact, making it one of the most well-preserved medieval towns in Europe. The historic centre of Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000. Many of its medieval buildings are notable, including the Church of Our Lady, whose brick spire reaches 122.3 m (401.25 ft), making it one of the world's highest brick towers/buildings. The sculpture Madonna and Child, which can be seen in the transept, is believed to be Michelangelo's only sculpture to have left Italy within his lifetime.
Bruges' most famous landmark is its 13th-century belfry, housing a municipal carillon comprising 48 bells. The city still employs a full-time carillonneur, who gives free concerts on a regular basis.
Other famous buildings in Bruges include:
Bruges has motorway connections to all directions:
Driving within the 'egg', the historical centre enclosed by the main circle of canals in Bruges, is discouraged by traffic management schemes, including a network of one-way streets. The system encourages the use of set routes leading to central car parks and direct exit routes. The car parks are convenient for the central commercial and tourist areas; they are not expensive.
Bruges' main railway station is the focus of lines to the Belgian coast. It also provides at least hourly trains to all other major cities in Belgium, as well as to Lille, France. Further there are several regional and local trains.
The main station is also a stop for the Thalys train Paris–Brussels–Ostend.
Bus links to the centre are frequent, though the railway station is just a 10-minute walk from the main shopping streets and a 20-minute walk from the Market Square.
Plans for a north–south light rail connection through Bruges, from Zeebrugge to Lichtervelde, and a light rail connection between Bruges and Ostend are under construction.
The national Brussels Airport, one hour away by train or car, offers the best connections. The nearest airport is the Ostend-Bruges International Airport in Ostend (around 25 kilometres (16 miles) from the city centre of Bruges), but it offers limited passenger transport and connections. Recently there also started a direct bus line from Brussels South Charleroi Airport to Bruges.
Bruges has an extensive web of bus lines, operated by De Lijn, providing access to the city centre and the suburbs (city lines, Dutch: stadslijnen) and to many towns and villages in the region around the city (regional lines, Dutch: streeklijnen).
In support of the municipal traffic management (see "Road" above), free public transport is available for those who park their cars in the main railway station car park.
Although a few streets are restricted, no part of Bruges is car free.
Cars are required to yield to pedestrians and cyclists. Plans have long been under way to ban cars altogether from the historic center of Bruges or to restrict traffic much more than it currently is, but these plans have yet to come to fruition. In 2005, signs were changed for the convenience of cyclists, allowing two-way cycle traffic on more streets, however car traffic has not decreased.
Nevertheless, in common with many cities in the region, there are thousands of cyclists in the city of Bruges.
The port of Bruges is Zeebrugge (Bruges-on-Sea).
On 6 March 1987, the British ferry MS Herald of Free Enterprise capsized after leaving the port, killing 187 people, the worst disaster involving a British civilian vessel since 1919.
Between 1998 and 2016 Bruges hosted the start of the annual Tour of Flanders cycle race, held in April and one of the biggest sporting events in Belgium.
Football is also popular in Bruges; the city hosts two professional football teams, of which one currently plays at the top level (Belgian First Division): Club Brugge K.V.. The second team, Cercle Brugge K.S.V., currently plays at the second tier, the Belgian Second Division. Both teams play their home games at the Jan Breydel Stadium (30,000 seats) in Sint-Andries. There are plans for a new stadium for Club Brugge with about 45,000 seats in the north of the city, while Cercle Brugge would renovate and reduce the capacity of the Jan Breydel Stadium.
In 2000 Bruges was one of the eight host cities for the UEFA European Football Championship, co-hosted by Belgium and its neighbour the Netherlands.
Bruges is an important centre for education in West Flanders. Next to the several common primary and secondary schools, there are a few colleges, like the VIVES ( a fusion of the former KHBO (katholieke hogeschool Brugge Oostende) and the KATHO (katholieke hoge school) or the HOWEST (Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen). Furthermore, the city is home to the College of Europe, a prestigious institution of postgraduate studies in European Economics, Law and Politics, and of the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS), a Research and Training Institute of the United Nations University specialising in the comparative study of regional integration.
On principle, Bruges has to date never entered into close collaboration with twin cities. Without denying the usefulness of these schemes for towns with fewer international contacts, the main reason is that Bruges would find it difficult to choose between cities and thinks that it has enough work already with its many international contacts. Also, it was thought in Bruges that twinning was too often an occasion for city authorities and representatives to travel on public expense.
This principle resulted, in the 1950s, in Bruges refusing a jumelage with Nice and other towns, signed by a Belgian ambassador without previous consultation. In the 1970s, a Belgian consul in Oldenburg made the mayor of Bruges sign a declaration of friendship which he tried to present, in vain, as a jumelage.
The twinning between some of the former communes, merged with Bruges in 1971, were discontinued.
This does not mean that Bruges would not be interested in cooperation with others, as well in the short term as in the long run, for particular projects. Here follow a few examples.